HotFreeBooks.com
English Men of Letters: Coleridge
by H. D. Traill
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Such, then, was the singular and even prosaic origin of the Ancient Mariner—a poem written to defray the expenses of a tour; surely the most sublime of "pot-boilers" to be found in all literature. It is difficult, from amid the astonishing combination of the elements of power, to select that which is the most admirable; but, considering both the character of the story and of its particular vehicle, perhaps the greatest achievement of the poem is the simple realistic force of its narrative. To achieve this was of course Coleridge's main object: he had undertaken to "transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imaginations that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith." But it is easier to undertake this than to perform it, and much easier to perform it in prose than in verse—with the assistance of the everyday and the commonplace than without it. Balzac's Peau de Chagrin is no doubt a great feat of the realistic-supernatural; but no one can help feeling how much the author is aided by his "broker's clerk" style of description, and by the familiar Parisian scenes among which he makes his hero move. It is easier to compass verisimilitude in the Palais-Royal than on the South Pacific, to say nothing of the thousand assisting touches, out of place in rhyme and metre, which can be thrown into a prose narrative. The Ancient Mariner, however, in spite of all these drawbacks, is as real to the reader as is the hero of the Peau de Chagrin; we are as convinced of the curse upon one of the doomed wretches as upon the other; and the strange phantasmagoric haze which is thrown around the ship and the lonely voyager leaves their outlines as clear as if we saw them through the sunshine of the streets of Paris. Coleridge triumphs over his difficulties by sheer vividness of imagery and terse vigour of descriptive phrase—two qualities for which his previous poems did not prove him to possess by any means so complete a mastery. For among all the beauties of his earlier landscapes we can hardly reckon that of intense and convincing truth. He seems seldom before to have written, as Wordsworth nearly always seems to write, "with his eye on the object;" and certainly he never before displayed any remarkable power of completing his word-picture with a few touches. In the Ancient Mariner his eye seems never to wander from his object, and again and again the scene starts out upon the canvas in two or three strokes of the brush. The skeleton ship, with the dicing demons on its deck; the setting sun peering "through its ribs, as if through a dungeon- grate;" the water-snakes under the moonbeams, with the "elfish light" falling off them "in hoary flakes" when they reared; the dead crew, who work the ship and "raise their limbs like lifeless tools"—everything seems to have been actually seen, and we believe it all as the story of a truthful eye-witness. The details of the voyage, too, are all chronicled with such order and regularity, there is such a diary- like air about the whole thing, that we accept it almost as if it were a series of extracts from the ship's "log." Then again the execution—a great thing to be said of so long a poem—is marvellously equal throughout; the story never drags or flags for a moment, its felicities of diction are perpetual, and it is scarcely marred by a single weak line. What could have been better said of the instantaneous descent of the tropical night than

"The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out: At one stride comes the dark;"

what more weirdly imagined of the "cracks and growls" of the rending iceberg than that they sounded "like noises in a swound"? And how beautifully steals in the passage that follows upon the cessation of the spirit's song—

"It ceased; yet still the sails made on A pleasant noise till noon, A noise like to a hidden brook In the leafy month of June, That to the sleeping woods all night Singeth a quiet tune."

Then, as the ballad draws to its close, after the ship has drifted over the harbour-bar—

"And I with sobs did pray— O let me be awake, my God; Or let me sleep alway,"

with what consummate art are we left to imagine the physical traces which the mariner's long agony had left behind it by a method far more terrible than any direct description—the effect, namely, which the sight of him produces upon others—

"I moved my lips—the Pilot shrieked And fell down in a fit; The holy Hermit raised his eyes, And prayed where he did sit.

"I took the oars: the Pilot's boy, Who now doth crazy go, Laughed loud and long, and all the while His eyes went to and fro. 'Ha! ha!' quoth he, 'full plain I see, The Devil knows how to row.'"

Perfect consistency of plan, in short, and complete equality of execution, brevity, self-restraint, and an unerring sense of artistic propriety—these are the chief notes of the Ancient Mariner, as they are not, in my humble judgment, the chief notes of any poem of Coleridge's before or since. And hence it is that this masterpiece of ballad minstrelsy is, as has been said, so confounding to the "pigeon-holing" mind.

The next most famous poem of this or indeed of any period of Coleridge's life is the fragment of Christabel, which, however, in spite of the poet's own opinion on that point, it is difficult to regard as "a more effective realisation" of the "natural-supernatural" idea. Beautiful as it is, it possesses none of that human interest with which, according to this idea, the narrator of the poetic story must undertake to invest it. Nor can the unfinished condition in which it was left be fairly held to account for this, for the characters themselves—the lady Christabel, the witch Geraldine, and even the baron Sir Leoline himself—are somewhat shadowy creations, with too little hold upon life and reality, and too much resemblance to the flitting figures of a dream. Powerful in their way as are the lines descriptive of the spell thrown over Christabel by her uncanny guest—lines at the recitation of which Shelley is said to have fainted—we cannot say that they strike a reader with such a sense of horror as should be excited by the contemplation of a real flesh-and-blood maiden subdued by "the shrunken serpent eyes" of a sorceress, and constrained "passively to imitate" their "look of dull and treacherous hate." Judging it, however, by any other standard than that of the poet's own erecting, one must certainly admit the claim of Christabel to rank very high as a work of pure creative art. It is so thoroughly suffused and permeated with the glow of mystical romance, the whole atmosphere of the poem is so exquisitely appropriate to the subject, and so marvellously preserved throughout, that our lack of belief in the reality of the scenes presented to us detracts but little from the pleasure afforded by the artistic excellence of its presentment. It abounds, too, in isolated pictures of surpassing vividness and grace— word-pictures which live in the "memory of the eye" with all the wholeness and tenacity of an actual painting. Geraldine appearing to Christabel beneath the oak, and the two women stepping lightly across the hall "that echoes still, pass as lightly as you will," are pictures of this kind; and nowhere out of Keats's Eve of St. Agnes is there any "interior" to match that of Christabel's chamber, done as it is in little more than half a dozen lines. These beauties, it is true, are fragmentary, like the poem itself, but there is no reason to believe that the poem itself would have gained anything in its entirety—that is to say, as a poetic narrative—by completion. Its main idea—that the purity of a pure maiden is a charm more powerful for the protection of those dear to her than the spells of the evil one for their destruction—had been already sufficiently indicated, and the mode in which Coleridge, it seems, intended to have worked would hardly have added anything to its effect. [4] And although he clung till very late in life to the belief that he could have finished it in after days with no change of poetic manner—"If easy in my mind," he says in a letter to be quoted hereafter, "I have no doubt either of the reawakening power or of the kindling inclination"—there are few students of his later poems who will share his confidence. Charles Lamb strongly recommended him to leave it unfinished, and Hartley Coleridge, in every respect as competent a judge on that point as could well be found, always declared his conviction that his father could not, at least qualis ab incepto, have finished the poem.

The much-admired little piece first published in the Lyrical Ballads under the title of Love, and probably best known by its (original) first and most pregnant stanza, [5] possesses a twofold interest for the student of Coleridge's life and works, as illustrating at once one of the most marked characteristics of his peculiar temperament, and one of the most distinctive features of his poetic manner. The lines are remarkable for a certain strange fascination of melody—a quality for which Coleridge, who was not unreasonably proud of his musical gift, is said to have especially prized them; and they are noteworthy also as perhaps the fullest expression of the almost womanly softness of Coleridge's nature. To describe their tone as effeminate would be unfair and untrue, for effeminacy in the work of a male hand would necessarily imply something of falsity of sentiment, and from this they are entirely free. But it must certainly be admitted that for a man's description of his wooing the warmth of feeling which pervades them is as nearly sexless in character as it is possible to conceive; and, beautiful as the verses are, one cannot but feel that they only escape the "namby-pamby" by the breadth of a hair.

As to the wild dream-poem Kubla Khan, it is hardly more than a psychological curiosity, and only that perhaps in respect of the completeness of its metrical form. For amid its picturesque but vague imagery there is nothing which might not have presented itself, and the like of which has not perhaps actually presented itself, to many a half-awakened brain of far lower imaginative energy during its hours of full daylight consciousness than that of Coleridge. Nor possibly is it quite an unknown experience to many of us to have even a fully-written record, so to speak, of such impressions imprinted instantaneously on the mind, the conscious composition of whole pages of narrative, descriptive, or cogitative matter being compressed as it were into a moment of time. Unfortunately, however, the impression made upon the ordinary brain is effaced as instantaneously as it is produced; the abnormal exaltation of the creative and apprehensive power is quite momentary, being probably indeed confined to the single moment between sleep and waking; and the mental tablet which a second before was covered so thickly with the transcripts of ideas and images, all far more vivid, or imagined to be so, than those of waking life, and all apprehended with a miraculous simultaneity by the mind, is converted into a tabula rasa in the twinkling of a half-opened eye. The wonder in Coleridge's case was that his brain retained the word-impressions sufficiently long to enable him to commit them, to the extent at least of some fifty odd lines, to paper, and that, according to his own belief, this is but a mere fraction of what but for an unlucky interruption in the work of transcribing he would have been able to preserve. His own account of this curious incident is as follows:—

"In the summer of 1797 the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading, the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage:—'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed by a wall.' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the corresponding expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effect. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and, taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter."

This poem, though written in 1797, remained, like Christabel, in MS. till 1816. These were then published in a thin quarto volume, together with another piece called the Pains of Sleep, a composition of many years' later date than the other two, and of which there will be occasion to say a word or two hereafter.

At no time, however, not even in this the high-tide of its activity, was the purely poetic impulse dominant for long together in Coleridge's mind. He was born with the instincts of the orator, and still more with those of the teacher, and I doubt whether he ever really regarded himself as fulfilling the true mission of his life except at those moments when he was seeking by spoken word to exercise direct influence over his fellow-men. At the same time, however, such was the restlessness of his intellect, and such his instability of purpose, that he could no more remain constant to what he deemed his true vocation than he could to any other. This was now to be signally illustrated. Soon after the Ancient Mariner was written, and some time before the volume which was to contain it appeared, Coleridge quitted Stowey for Shrewsbury to undertake the duties of a Unitarian preacher in that town. This was in the month of January 1798, [6] and it seems pretty certain, though exact dates are not to be ascertained, that he was back again at Stowey early in the month of February. In the pages of the Liberal (1822) William Hazlitt has given a most graphic and picturesque description of Coleridge's appearance and performance in his Shrewsbury pulpit; and, judging from this, one can well believe, what indeed was to have been antecedently expected, that had he chosen to remain faithful to his new employment he might have rivalled the reputation of the greatest preacher of the time. But his friends the Wedgwoods, the two sons of the great potter, whose acquaintance he had made a few years earlier, were apparently much dismayed at the prospect of his deserting the library for the chapel, and they offered him an annuity of L150 a year on condition of his retiring from the ministry and devoting himself entirely to the study of poetry and philosophy. Coleridge was staying at the house of Hazlitt's father when the letter containing this liberal offer reached him, "and he seemed," says the younger Hazlitt, "to make up his mind to close with the proposal in the act of tying on one of his shoes." Another inducement to so speedy an acceptance of it is no doubt to be found in the fact of its presenting to Coleridge an opportunity for the fulfilment of a cherished desire—that, namely, of "completing his education," as he regarded it, by studying the German language, and acquiring an acquaintance with the theology and philosophy of Germany in that country itself. This prospect he was enabled, through the generosity of the Wedgwoods, to put into execution towards the end of 1798. But before passing on from this culminating and, to all intents and purposes, this closing year of Coleridge's career as a poet it will be proper to attempt something like a final review of his poetic work. Admirable as much of that work is, and unique in quality as it is throughout, I must confess that it leaves on my own mind a stronger impression of the unequal and imperfect than does that of any poet at all approaching Coleridge in imaginative vigour and intellectual grasp. It is not a mere inequality and imperfection of style like that which so seriously detracts from the pleasure of reading Byron. Nor is it that the thought is often impar sibi—that, like Wordsworth's, it is too apt to descend from the mountain-tops of poetry to the flats of commonplace, if not into the bogs of bathos. In both these respects Coleridge may and does occasionally offend, but his workmanship is, on the whole, as much more artistic than Byron's as the material of his poetry is of more uniformly equal value than Wordsworth's. Yet, with almost the sole exception of the Ancient Mariner, his work is in a certain sense more disappointing than that of either. In spite of his theory as to the twofold function of poetry we must finally judge that of Coleridge, as of any other poet, by its relation to the actual. Ancient Mariners and Christabels—the people, the scenery, and the incidents of an imaginary world—may be handled by poetry once and again to the wonder and delight of man; but feats of this kind cannot— or cannot in the Western world, at any rate—be repeated indefinitely, and the ultimate test of poetry, at least for the modern European reader, is its treatment of actualities—its relations to the world of human action, passion, sensation, thought. And when we try Coleridge's poetry in any one of these four regions of life, we seem forced to admit that, despite all its power and beauty, it at no moment succeeds in convincing us, as at their best moments Wordsworth's and even Byron's continually does, that the poet has found his true poetic vocation—that he is interpreting that aspect of life which he can interpret better than he can any other, and which no other poet, save the one who has vanquished all poets in their own special fields of achievement, can interpret as well as he. In no poem of actuality does Coleridge so victoriously show himself to be the right man at the right work as does Wordsworth in certain moods of seership and Byron in certain moments of passion. Of them at such moods and moments we feel assured that they have discovered where their real strength lies, and have put it forth to the utmost. But we never feel satisfied that Coleridge has discovered where his real strength lies, and he strikes us as feeling no more certainty on the point himself. Strong as is his pinion, his flight seems to resemble rather that of the eaglet than of the full-grown eagle even to the last. He continues "mewing his mighty youth" a little too long. There is a tentativeness of manner which seems to come from a conscious aptitude for many poetic styles and an incapacity to determine which should be definitively adopted and cultivated to perfection. Hence one too often returns from any prolonged ramble through Coleridge's poetry with an unsatisfied feeling which does not trouble us on our return from the best literary country of Byron or Wordsworth. Byron has taken us by rough roads, and Wordsworth led us through some desperately flat and dreary lowlands to his favourite "bits;" but we feel that we have seen mountain and valley, wood and river, glen and waterfall at their best. But Coleridge's poetry leaves too much of the feeling of a walk through a fine country on a misty day. We may have had many a peep of beautiful scenery and occasional glimpses of the sublime; but the medium of vision has been of variable quality, and somehow we come home with an uneasy suspicion that we have not seen as much as we might. It is obvious, however, even upon a cursory consideration of the matter, that this disappointing element in Coleridge's poetry is a necessary result of the circumstances of its production; for the period of his productive activity (at least after attaining manhood) was too short to enable a mind with so many intellectual distractions to ascertain its true poetic bent, and to concentrate its energies thereupon. If he seems always to be feeling his way towards the work which he could do best, it is for the very good reason that this is what, from 1796 to 1800, he was continually doing as a matter of fact. The various styles which he attempted—and for a season, in each case, with such brilliant results—are forms of poetic expression corresponding, on the face of them, to poetic impulses of an essentially fleeting nature. The political or politico-religious odes were the offspring of youthful democratic enthusiasm; the supernatural poems, so to call them for want of a better name, had their origin in an almost equally youthful and more than equally transitory passion for the wild and wondrous. Political disillusion is fatal to the one impulse, and mere advance in years extinguishes the other. Visions of Ancient Mariners and Christabels do not revisit the mature man, and the Toryism of middle life will hardly inspire odes to anything.

With the extinction of these two forms of creative impulse Coleridge's poetic activity, from causes to be considered hereafter, came almost entirely to an end, and into what later forms it might subsequently have developed remains therefore a matter more or less of conjecture. Yet I think there is almost a sufficiency of a priori evidence as to what that form would have been. Had the poet in him survived until years had "brought the philosophic mind," he would doubtless have done for the human spirit, in its purely isolated self-communings, what Wordsworth did for it in its communion with external nature. All that the poetry of Wordsworth is for the mind which loves to hold converse with the world of things; this, and more perhaps than this—if more be possible—would the poetry of Coleridge have been for the mind which abides by preference in the world of self-originating emotion and introspective thought. Wordsworth's primary function is to interpret nature to man: the interpretation of man to himself is with him a secondary process only-the response, in almost every instance, to impressions from without. This poet can nobly brace the human heart to fortitude; but he must first have seen the leech-gatherer on the lonely moor. The "presence and the spirit interfused" throughout creation is revealed to us in moving and majestic words; yet the poet requires to have felt it "in the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air" before he feels it "in the mind of man." But what Wordsworth grants only to the reader who wanders with him in imagination by lake and mountain, the Muse of Coleridge, had she lived, would have bestowed upon the man who has entered into his inner chamber and shut to the door. This, it seems to me, is the work for which genius, temperament, and intellectual habit would alike have fitted him. For while his feeling for internal nature was undoubtedly less profound, less mystically penetrating than Wordsworth's, his sensibilities in general were incomparably quicker and more subtle than those of the friend in whom he so generously recognised a master; and the reach of his sympathies extends to forms of human emotion, to subjects of human interest which lay altogether outside the somewhat narrow range of Wordsworth's.

And, with so magnificent a furniture of those mental and moral qualities which should belong to "a singer of man to men," it must not be forgotten that his technical equipment for the work was of the most splendidly effective kind. If a critic like Mr. Swinburne seems to speak in exaggerated praise of Coleridge's lyrics, we can well understand their enchantment for a master of music like himself. Probably it was the same feeling which made Shelley describe France as "the finest ode in the English language." With all, in fact, who hold—as it is surely plausible to hold—that the first duty of a singer is to sing, the poetry of Coleridge will always be more likely to be classed above than below its merits, great as they are. For, if we except some occasional lapses in his sonnets—a metrical form in which, at his best, he is quite "out of the running" with Wordsworth—his melody never fails him. He is a singer always, as Wordsworth is not always, and Byron almost never. The 'olian Harp to which he so loved to listen does not more surely respond in music to the breeze of heaven than does Coleridge's poetic utterance to the wind of his inspiration. Of the dreamy fascination which Love exercises over a listening ear I have already spoken; and there is hardly less charm in the measure and assonances of the Circassian Love Chant. Christabel again, considered solely from the metrical point of view, is a veritable tour de force—the very model of a metre for romantic legend: as which, indeed, it was imitated with sufficient grace and spirit, but seldom with anything approaching to Coleridge's melody, by Sir Walter Scott.

Endowed therefore with so glorious a gift of song, and only not fully master of his poetic means because of the very versatility of his artistic power and the very variety and catholicity of his youthful sympathies, it is unhappily but too certain that the world has lost much by that perversity of conspiring accidents which so untimely silenced Coleridge's muse. And the loss is the more trying to posterity because he seems, to a not, I think, too curiously considering criticism, to have once actually struck that very chord which would have sounded the most movingly beneath his touch,—and to have struck it at the very moment when the failing hand was about to quit the keys for ever.

"Ostendunt terris hunc tantum fata neque ultra Esse sinunt."

I cannot regard it as merely fantastic to believe that the Dejection, that dirge of infinite pathos over the grave of creative imagination, might, but for the fatal decree which had by that time gone forth against Coleridge's health and happiness, have been but the cradle-cry of a new-born poetic power, in which imagination, not annihilated but transmigrant, would have splendidly proved its vitality through other forms of song.

FOOTNOTES

1. Perhaps the deepest impress of the Wordsworthian influence is to be found in the little poem Frost at Midnight, with its affecting apostrophe to the sleeping infant at his side—infant destined to develop as wayward a genius and to lead as restless and irresolute a life as his father. Its closing lines—

"Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness... ... whether the eave-drops fall, Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles Quietly shining to the quiet moon"—

might have flowed straight from the pen of Wordsworth himself.

2. "You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good tempered and cheerful, and, like William, interests himself so much about every little trifle. At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes; he is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half- curling rough black hair. But if you hear him speak for five minutes you think no more of them. His eye is large and full, and not very dark but gray, such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind: it has more of the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling than I ever witnessed. He has fine dark eyebrows and an overhanging forehead."

3. The lines—

"And it is long, and lank, and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand."

4. Mr. Gillman (in his Life, p. 301) gives the following somewhat bald outline of what were to form the two concluding cantos, no doubt on the authority of Coleridge himself. The second canto ends, it may be remembered, with the despatch of Bracy the bard to the castle of Sir Roland:—"Over the mountains the Bard, as directed by Sir Leoline, hastes with his disciple; but, in consequence of one of those inundations supposed to be common to the country, the spot only where the castle once stood is discovered, the edifice itself being washed away. He determines to return. Geraldine, being acquainted with all that is passing, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, vanishes. Reappearing, however, she awaits the return of the Bard, exciting in the meantime by her wily arts all the anger she could rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is described to have been susceptible. The old bard and the youth at length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the character of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes her appearance to that of the accepted though absent lover of Christabel. Next ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who feels—she knows not why—great disgust for her once favoured knight. This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation. She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach the altar with the hated suitor. The real lover returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her betrothment. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle-bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and, to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between father and daughter." 5.

"All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame, All are but ministers of Love, And feed his sacred flame."

6. It may be suggested that this sudden resolution was forced upon Coleridge by the res angusta domi. But I do not think that was the case. In the winter of 1797 he had obtained an introduction to and entered into a literary engagement with Mr. Stuart of the Morning Post, and could thus have met, as in fact he afterwards did meet, the necessities of the hour.



CHAPTER IV.

Visit to Germany—Life at Gottingen,—Return—Explores the Lake Country —London—The Morning Post—Coleridge as a journalist—Retirement to Keswick.

[1799-1800.]

The departure of the two poets for the Continent was delayed only till they had seen their joint volume through the press. The Lyrical Ballads appeared in the autumn of 1798, and on 16th September of that year Coleridge left Yarmouth for Hamburg with Wordsworth and his sister. [1] The purpose of his two companions' tour is not known to have been other than the pleasure, or mixed pleasure and instruction, usually derivable from foreign travel; that of Coleridge was strictly, even sternly, educational. Immediately on his arrival in Germany he parted from the Wordsworths, who went on to Gozlar, [2] and took up his abode at the house of the pastor at Ratzeburg, with whom he spent five months in assiduous study of the language. In January he removed to Gottingen. Of his life here during the next few months we possess an interesting record in the Early Years and Late Reflections of Dr. Carrlyon, a book published many years after the events which it relates, but which is quite obviously a true reflection of impressions yet fresh in the mind of its writer when its materials were first collected. Its principal value, in fact, is that it gives us Coleridge from the standpoint of the average young educated Englishman of the day, sufficiently intelligent, indeed, to be sensible of his fellow- student's transcendent abilities, but as little awed by them out of youth's healthy irreverence of criticism as the ordinary English undergraduate ever has been by the intellectual supremacy of any "greatest man of his day" who might chance to have been his contemporary at Oxford or Cambridge. In Dr. Carrlyon's reminiscences and in the quoted letters of a certain young Parry, another of the English student colony at Gottingen, we get a piquant picture of the poet-philosopher of seven-and-twenty, with his yet buoyant belief in his future, his still unquenched interest in the world of things, and his never-to-be-quenched interest in the world of thought, his even then inexhaustible flow of disquisition, his generous admiration for the gifts of others, and his naive complacency—including, it would seem, a touch of the vanity of personal appearance—in his own. "He frequently," writes Dr. Carrlyon, "recited his own poetry, and not unfrequently led us further into the labyrinth of his metaphysical elucidations, either of particular passages or of the original conception of any of his productions, than we were able to follow him. At the conclusion, for instance, of the first stanza of Christabel, he would perhaps comment at full length upon such a line as 'Tu—whit!—Tu—whoo!' that we might not fall into the mistake of supposing originality to be its sole merit." The example is not very happily chosen, for Coleridge could hardly have claimed "originality" for an onomatopoeia which occurs in one of Shakspeare's best known lyrics; but it serves well enough to illustrate the fact that he "very seldom went right to the end of any piece of poetry; to pause and analyse was his delight." His disappointment with regard to his tragedy of Osorio was, we also learn, still fresh. He seldom, we are told, "recited any of the beautiful passages with which it abounds without a visible interruption of the perfect composure of his mind." He mentioned with great emotion Sheridan's inexcusable treatment of him with respect to it. At the same time, adds his friend, "he is a severe critic of his own productions, and declares" (this no doubt with reference to his then, and indeed his constant estimate of Christabel as his masterpiece) "that his best poems have perhaps not appeared in print."

Young Parry's account of his fellow-student is also fresh and pleasing. "It is very delightful," he tells a correspondent, "to hear him sometimes discourse on religious topics for an hour together. His fervour is particularly agreeable when compared with the chilling speculations of German philosophers," whom Coleridge, he adds, "successively forced to abandon all their strongholds." He is "much liked, notwithstanding many peculiarities. He is very liberal towards all doctrines and opinions, and cannot be put out of temper. These circumstances give him the advantage of his opponents, who are always bigoted and often irascible. Coleridge is an enthusiast on many subjects, and must therefore appear to many to possess faults, and no doubt he has faults, but he has a good heart and a large mass of information with," as his fellow-student condescendingly admits, "superior talents. The great fault which his friends may lament is the variety of subjects which he adopts, and the abstruse nature of his ordinary speculations, extra homines podtas. They can easily," concludes the writer, rising here to the full stateliness of youth's epistolary style, "they can easily excuse his devoted attachment to his country, and his reasoning as to the means of producing the greatest human happiness, but they do not universally approve the mysticism of his metaphysics and the remoteness of his topics from human comprehension."

In the month of May 1799 Coleridge set out with a party of his fellow- students on a walking tour through the Harz Mountains, an excursion productive of much oral philosophising on his part, and of the composition of the Lines on ascending the Brocken, not one of the happiest efforts of his muse. As to the philosophising, "he never," says one of his companions on this trip, "appeared to tire of mental exercise; talk seemed to him a perennial pastime, and his endeavours to inform and amuse us ended only with the cravings of hunger or the fatigue of a long march, from which neither his conversational powers nor his stoicism could protect himself or us." It speaks highly for the matter of Coleridge's allocutions that such incessant outpourings during a mountaineering tramp appear to have left no lasting impression of boredom behind them. The holiday seems to have been thoroughly enjoyed by the whole party, and Coleridge, at any rate, had certainly earned it. For once, and it is almost to be feared for the last time in his life, he had resisted his besetting tendency to dispersiveness, and constrained his intelligence to apply itself to one thing at a time. He had come to Germany to acquire the language, and to learn what of German theology and metaphysics he might find worth the study, and his five months' steady pursuit of the former object had been followed by another four months of resolute prosecution of the latter. He attended the lectures of Professor Blumenbach, and obtained through a fellow- student notes from those of Eichhorn. He suffered no interruption in his studies, unless we are to except a short visit from Wordsworth and his sister, who had spent most of their stay abroad in residence at Gozlar; and he appears, in short, to have made in every way the best use of his time. On 24th June 1799 he gave his leave-taking supper at Gottingen, replying to the toast of his health in fluent German but with an execrable accent; and the next day presumably he started on his homeward journey.

His movements for the next few months are incorrectly stated in most of the brief memoirs prefixed to the various editions of the poet's works, —their writers having, it is to be imagined, accepted without examination a misplaced date of Mr. Gillman's. It is not the fact that Coleridge "returned to England after an absence of fourteen months, and arrived in London the 27th of November." His absence could not have lasted longer than a year, for we know from the evidence of Miss Wordsworth's diary that he was exploring the Lake country (very likely for the first time) in company with her brother and herself in the month of September 1799. The probability is that he arrived in England early in July, and immediately thereupon did the most natural and proper thing to be done under the circumstances—namely, returned to his wife and children at Nether Stowey, and remained there for the next two months, after which he set off with the Wordsworths, then still at Alfoxden, to visit the district to which the latter had either already resolved upon, or were then contemplating, the transfer of their abode. The 27th of November is no doubt the correct date of his arrival in London, though not "from abroad." And his first six weeks in the metropolis were spent in a very characteristic fashion—in the preparation, namely, of a work which he pronounced with perfect accuracy to be destined to fall dead from the press. He shut himself up in a lodging in Buckingham Street, Strand, and by the end of the above-mentioned period he had completed his admirable translation of Wallenstein, in itself a perfect, and indeed his most perfect dramatic poem. The manuscript of this English version of Schiller's drama was purchased by Messrs. Longman under the condition that the translation and the original should appear at the same time. Very few copies were sold, and the publishers, indifferent to Coleridge's advice to retain the unsold copies until the book should become fashionable, disposed of them as waste paper. Sixteen years afterwards, on the publication of Christabel, they were eagerly sought for, and the few remaining copies doubled their price. It was while engaged upon this work that he formed that connection with political jouralism which lasted, though with intermissions, throughout most of the remainder of his life. His early poetical pieces had, as we have seen, made their first appearance in the Morning Post, but hitherto that newspaper had received no prose contribution from his pen. His engagement with its proprietor, Mr. Daniel Stuart, to whom he had been introduced during a visit to London in 1797, was to contribute an occasional copy of verses for a stipulated annual sum; and some dozen or so of his poems (notably among them the ode to France and the two strange pieces Fire Famine and Slaughter and The Devil's Thoughts) had entered the world in this way during the years 1798 and 1799.

Misled by the error above corrected, the writers of some of the brief memoirs of Coleridge's life represent him as having sent verse contributions to the Morning Post from Germany in 1799; but as the earliest of these only appeared in August of that year there is no reason to suppose that any of them were written before his return to England. The longest of the serious pieces is the well-known Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which cannot be regarded as one of the happiest of Coleridge's productions. Its motive is certainly a little slight, and its sentiment more than a little overstrained. The noble enthusiasm of the noble lady who, "though nursed in pomp and pleasure," could yet condescend to "hail the platform wild where once the Austrian fell beneath the shaft of Tell," hardly strikes a reader of the present day as remarkable enough to be worth "gushing" over; and when the poet goes on to suggest as the explanation of Georgiana's having "learned that heroic measure" that the Whig great lady had suckled her own children, we certainly seem to have taken the fatal step beyond the sublime! It is to be presumed that Tory great ladies invariably employed the services of a wet-nurse, and hence failed to win the same tribute from the angel of the earth, who, usually, while he guides

"His chariot-planet round the goal of day, All trembling gazes on the eye of God,"

but who on this occasion "a moment turned his awful face away" to gaze approvingly on the high-born mother who had so conscientiously performed her maternal duties.

Very different is the tone of this poem from that of the two best known of Coleridge's lighter contributions to the Morning Post. The most successful of these, however, from the journalistic point of view, is in a literary sense the less remarkable. One is indeed a little astonished to find that a public, accustomed to such admirable political satire as the Anti-Jacobin, should have been so much taken as it seems to have been by the rough versification and somewhat clumsy sarcasm of the Devil's Thoughts. The poem created something like a furore, and sold a large reissue of the number of the Morning Post in which it appeared. Nevertheless it is from the metrical point of view doggerel, as indeed the author admits, three of its most smoothly- flowing stanzas being from the hand of Southey, while there is nothing in its boisterous political drollery to put its composition beyond the reach of any man of strong partisan feelings and a turn for street-humour. Fire Famine and Slaughter, on the other hand, is literary in every sense of the word, requiring indeed, and very urgently, to insist on its character as literature, in order to justify itself against the charge of inhuman malignity. Despite the fact that "letters four do form his name," it is of course an idealised statesman, and not the real flesh and blood Mr. Pitt, whom the sister furies, Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, extol as their patron in these terrible lines. The poem must be treated as what lawyers call an "A. B. case." Coleridge must be supposed to be lashing certain alphabetical symbols arranged in a certain order. This idealising process is perfectly easy and familiar to everybody with the literary sense. The deduction for "poetic license" is just as readily, though it does not, of course, require to be as frequently, made with respect to the hyperbole of denunciation as with respect to that of praise. Nor need we doubt that this deduction had in fact been made by all intelligent readers long before that agitating dinner at Mr. Sotheby's, which Coleridge describes with such anxious gravity in his apologetic preface to the republication of the lines. On the whole one may pretty safely accept De Quincey's view of the true character of this incident as related by him in his own inimitable fashion, namely, that it was in the nature of an elaborate hoax, played off at the poet's expense. [3] The malice of the piece is, as De Quincey puts it, quite obviously a "malice of the understanding and fancy," and not of the heart. There is significance in the mere fact that the poem was deliberately published by Coleridge two years after its composition, when the vehemence of his political animosities had much abated. Written in 1796, it did not appear in the Morning Post till January 1798.

He was now, however, about to draw closer his connection with the newspaper press. Soon after his return from Germany he was solicited to "undertake the literary and political department in the Morning Post," and acceded to the proposal "on condition that the paper should thenceforward be conducted on certain fixed and announced principles, and that he should be neither obliged nor requested to deviate from them in favour of any party or any event." Accordingly, from December 1799 until about midsummer of 1800, Coleridge became a regular contributor of political articles to this journal, sometimes to the number of two or three in one week. At the end of the period of six months he quitted London, and his contributions became necessarily less frequent, but they were continued (though with two apparent breaks of many months in duration) [4] until the close of the year 1802. It would seem, however, that nothing but Coleridge's own disinclination prevented this connection from taking a form in which it would have profoundly modified his whole future career. In a letter to Mr. Poole, dated March 1800, he informs his friend that if he "had the least love of money" he could "make sure of L2000 a year, for that Stuart had offered him half shares in his two papers, the Morning Post and the Courier, if he would devote himself to them in conjunction with their proprietor. But I told him," he continues, "that I would not give up the country and the lazy reading of old folios for two thousand times two thousand pounds,—in short, that beyond L350 a year I considered money as a real evil." Startlingly liberal as this offer will appear to the journalist, it seems really to have been made. For, writing long afterwards to Mr. Nelson Coleridge, Mr. Stuart says: "Could Coleridge and I place ourselves thirty years back, and he be so far a man of business as to write three or four hours a day, there is nothing I would not pay for his assistance. I would take him into partnership, and I would enable him to make a large fortune." Nor is there any reason to think that the bargain would have been a bad one for the proprietor from the strictly commercial point of view. Coleridge in later years may no doubt have overrated the effect of his own contributions on the circulation of the Morning Post, but it must have been beyond question considerable, and would in all likelihood have become far greater if he could have been induced to devote himself more closely to the work of journalism. For the fact is—and it is a fact for which the current conception of Coleridge's intellectual character does not altogether prepare one—that he was a workman of the very first order of excellence in this curious craft. The faculties which go to the attainment of such excellence are not perhaps among the highest distinctions of the human mind, but, such as they are, they are specific and well marked; they are by no means the necessary accompaniments even of the most conspicuous literary power, and they are likely rather to suffer than to profit by association with great subtlety of intellect or wide philosophic grasp. It is not to the advantage of the journalist, as such, that he should see too many things at a time, or too far into any one thing, and even the gifts of an active imagination and an abundant vocabulary are each of them likely to prove a snare. To be wholly successful, the journalist—at least the English journalist—must not be too eloquent, or too witty, or too humorous, or too ingenious, or too profound. Yet the English reader likes, or thinks he likes, eloquence; he has a keen sense of humour, and a fair appreciation of wit; and he would be much hurt if he were told that ingenuity and profundity were in themselves distasteful to him. How, then, to give him enough of these qualities to please and not enough to offend him—as much eloquence as will stir his emotions, but not enough to arouse his distrust; as much wit as will carry home the argument, but not enough to make him doubt its sincerity; as much humour as will escape the charge of levity, as much ingenuity as can be displayed without incurring suspicion, and as much profundity as may impress without bewildering? This is a problem which is fortunately simplified for most journalists by the fact of their possessing these qualities in no more than, if in so much as, the minimum required. But Coleridge, it must be remembered, possessed most of them in embarrassing superfluity. Not all of them indeed, for, though he could be witty and at times humorous, his temptations to excess in these respects were doubtless not considerable. But as for his eloquence, he was from his youth upwards Isoo torrentior, his dialectical ingenuity was unequalled, and in disquisition of the speculative order no man was so apt as he to penetrate more deeply into his subject than most of his readers would care to follow him. A priori, therefore, one would have expected that Coleridge's instincts would have led him to rhetorise too much in his diction, to refine too much in his arguments, and to philosophise too much in his reflections, to have hit the popular taste as a journalist, and that at the age of eight-and-twenty he would have been unable to subject these tendencies either to the artistic repression of the maturer writer or to the tactical restraints of the trained advocate. This eminently natural assumption, however, is entirely rebutted by the facts. Nothing is more remarkable in Coleridge's contributions to the Morning Post than their thoroughly workmanlike character from the journalistic point of view, their avoidance of "viewiness," their strict adherence to the one or two simple points which he is endeavouring at any particular juncture in politics to enforce upon his readers, and the steadiness with which he keeps his own and his readers' attention fixed on the special political necessities of the hour. His articles, in short, belong to that valuable class to which, while it gives pleasure to the cultivated reader, the most commonplace and Philistine man of business cannot refuse the to him supreme praise of being eminently "practical." They hit the nail on the head in nearly every case, and they take the plainest and most direct route to their point, dealing in rhetoric and metaphor only so far as the strictly "business" ends of the argument appear to require. Nothing, for instance, could have been better done, better reasoned and written, more skilfully adapted throughout to the English taste, than Coleridge's criticism (3lst Dec. 1799) on the new constitution established by Bonaparte and Sieyes on the foundation of the Consulate, with its eighty senators, the "creatures of a renegade priest, himself the creature of a foreign mercenary, its hundred tribunes who are to talk and do nothing, and its three hundred legislators whom the constitution orders to be silent." What a ludicrous Purgatory, adds he, "for three hundred Frenchmen!" Very vigorous, moreover, is he on the ministerial rejection of the French proposals of peace in 1800, arguing against the continuance of the war on the very sound anti-Jacobin ground that if it were unsuccessful it would inflame French ambition anew, and, if successful, repeat the experience of the results of rendering France desperate, and simply reanimate Jacobinism.

Effective enough too, for the controversial needs of the moment, was the argument that if France were known, as Ministers pretended, to be insincere in soliciting peace, "Ministers would certainly treat with her, since they would again secure the support of the British people in the war, and expose the ambition of the enemy;" and that, therefore, the probability was that the British Government knew France to be sincere, and shrank from negotiation lest it should expose their own desire to prosecute the war. [5] Most happy, again, is his criticism of Lord Grenville's note, with its references to the unprovoked aggression of France (in the matter of the opening of the Scheldt, etc.) as the sole cause and origin of the war. "If this were indeed true, in what ignorance must not Mr. Pitt and Mr. Windham have kept the poor Duke of Portland, who declared in the House of Lords that the cause of the war was the maintenance of the Christian religion?"

To add literary excellence of the higher order to the peculiar qualities which give force to the newspaper article is for a journalist, of course, a "counsel of perfection;" but it remains to be remarked that Coleridge did make this addition in a most conspicuous manner. Mrs. H. N. Coleridge's three volumes of her father's Essays on his own Times deserve to live as literature apart altogether from their merits as journalism. Indeed among the articles in the Morning Post between 1799 and 1802 may be found some of the finest specimens of Coleridge's maturer prose style. The character of Pitt, which appeared on 19th March 1800, is as remarkable for its literary merits as it is for the almost humorous political perversity which would not allow the Minister any single merit except that which he owed to the sedulous rhetorical training received by him from his father, viz. "a premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words." [6] The letters to Fox, again, though a little artificialised perhaps by reminiscences of Junius, are full of weight and dignity. But by far the most piquant illustration of Coleridge's peculiar power is to be found in the comparison between his own version of Pitt's speech of 17th February 1800, on the continuance of the war, with the report of it which appeared in the Times of that date. With the exception of a few unwarranted elaborations of the arguments here and there, the two speeches are in substance identical; but the effect of the contrast between the minister's cold state-paper periods and the life and glow of the poet-journalist's style is almost comic. Mr. Gillman records that Canning, calling on business at the editor's, inquired, as others had done, who was the reporter of the speech for the Morning Post, and, on being told, remarked drily that the report "did more credit to his head than to his memory."

On the whole one can well understand Mr. Stuart's anxiety to secure Coleridge's permanent collaboration with him in the business of journalism; and it would be possible to maintain, with less of paradox than may at first sight appear, that it would have been better not only for Coleridge himself but for the world at large if the editor's efforts had been successful. It would indeed have been bowing the neck to the yoke; but there are some natures upon which constraint of that sort exercises not a depressing but a steadying influence. What, after all, would the loss in hours devoted to a comparatively inferior class of literary labour have amounted to when compared with the gain in much- needed habits of method and regularity, and—more valuable than all to an intellect like Coleridge's,—in the constant reminder that human life is finite and the materials of human speculation infinite, and that even a world-embracing mind must apportion its labour to its day? There is, however, the great question of health to be considered— the question, as every one knows, of Coleridge's whole career and life. If health was destined to give way, in any event—if its collapse, in fact, was simply the cause of all the lamentable external results which followed it, while itself due only to predetermined internal conditions over which the sufferer had no control—then to be sure cadit qu'stio. At London or at the Lakes, among newspaper files or old folios, Coleridge's life would in that case have run the same sad course; and his rejection of Mr. Stuart's offer becomes a matter of no particular interest to disappointed posterity. But be that as it may, the "old folios" won the day. In the summer of 1800 Coleridge quitted London, and having wound up his affairs at his then place of residence, removed with his wife and children to a new and beautiful home in that English Lake country with which his name was destined, like those of Southey and Wordsworth, to be enduringly associated.

FOOTNOTES

1. De Quincey's error, in supposing that Coleridge's visit to Germany to "complete his education" was made at an earlier date than this journey with the Wordsworths, is a somewhat singular mistake for one so well acquainted with the facts of Coleridge's life. Had we not his own statement that this of 1798 was the first occasion of his quitting his native country, it so happens that we can account in England for nearly every month of his time from his leaving Cambridge until this date.

2. It has only within a comparatively recent period been ascertained that the visit of the Wordsworths to Germany was itself another result of Thomas Wedgwood's generous appreciation of literary merit. It appears, on the incontrovertible testimony of the Wedgwoods' accounts with their agents at Hamburg, that the expenses of all three travellers were defrayed by their friend at home. The credits opened for them amounted, during the course of their stay abroad, to some L260.—Miss Meteyard's A Group of Englishmen, p. 99.

3. After quoting the two concluding lines of the poem, "Fire's" rebuke of her inconstant sisters, in the words

"I alone am faithful, I Cling to him everlastingly,"

De Quincey proceeds: "The sentiment is diabolical; and the question argued at the London dinner-table (Mr. Sotheby's) was 'Could the writer have been other than a devil?'... Several of the great guns among the literary body were present—in particular Sir Walter Scott, and he, we believe, with his usual good nature, took the apologetic side of the dispute; in fact, he was in the secret. Nobody else, barring the author, knew at first whose good name was at stake. The scene must have been high. The company kicked about the poor diabolic writer's head as though it had been a tennis-ball. Coleridge, the yet unknown criminal, absolutely perspired and fumed in pleading for the defendant; the company demurred; the orator grew urgent; wits began to smoke the case as an active verb, the advocate to smoke as a neuter verb; the 'fun grew fast and furious,' until at length the delinquent arose, burning tears in his eyes, and confessed to an audience now bursting with stifled laughter (but whom he supposed to be bursting with fiery indignation), 'Lo, I am he that wrote it.'"

4. Sic in Essays on his own Times by S. T. C., the collection of her father's articles made by Mrs. Nelson (Sara) Coleridge; but without attributing strange error to Coleridge's own estimate (in the Biographia Literaria) of the amount of his journalistic work, it is impossible to believe that this collection, forming as it does but two small volumes, and a portion of a third, is anything like complete.

5. Alas, that the facts should be so merciless to the most excellent arguments! Coleridge could not foresee that Napoleon would, years afterwards, admit in his own Memoirs the insincerity of his overtures. "I had need of war; a treaty of peace...would have withered every imagination." And when Mr. Pitt's answer arrived, "it filled me with a secret satisfaction."

6. The following passage, too, is curious as showing how polemics, like history, repeat themselves. "As his reasonings were, so is his eloquence. One character pervades his whole being. Words on words, finely arranged, and so dexterously consequent that the whole bears the semblance of argument and still keeps awake a sense of surprise; but, when all is done, nothing rememberable has been said; no one philosophical remark, no one image, not even a pointed aphorism. Not a sentence of Mr. Pitt's has ever been quoted, or formed the favourite phrase of the day—a thing unexampled in any man of equal reputation." With the alteration of one word—the proper name—this passage might have been taken straight from some political diatribe of to-day.



CHAPTER V.

Life at Keswick—Second part of Christabel—Failing health—Resort to opium—The Ode to Dejection—Increasing restlessness—Visit to Malta.

[1800-1804.]

We are now approaching the turning-point, moral and physical, of Coleridge's career. The next few years determined not only his destiny as a writer but his life as a man. Between his arrival at Keswick in the summer of 1800 and his departure for Malta in the spring of 1804 that fatal change of constitution, temperament, and habits which governed the whole of his subsequent history had fully established itself. Between these two dates he was transformed from the Coleridge of whom his young fellow-students in Germany have left us so pleasing a picture into the Coleridge whom distressed kinsmen, alienated friends, and a disappointed public were to have before them for the remainder of his days. Here, then, at Keswick, and in these first two or three years of the century—here or nowhere is the key to the melancholy mystery to be found.

It is probable that only those who have gone with some minuteness into the facts of this singular life are aware how great was the change effected during this very short period of time. When Coleridge left London for the Lake country he had not completed his eight-and-twentieth year. Before he was thirty he wrote that Ode to Dejection in which his spiritual and moral losses are so pathetically bewailed. His health and spirits, his will and habits, may not have taken any unalterable bent for the worse until 1804, the year of his departure for Malta—the date which I have thought it safest to assign as the definitive close of the earlier and happier period of his life; but undoubtedly the change had fully manifested itself more than two years before. And a very great and painful one it assuredly was. We know from the recorded evidence of Dr. Carrlyon and others that Coleridge was full of hope and gaiety, full of confidence in himself and of interest in life during his few months' residence in Germany. The annus mirabilis of his poetic life was but two years behind him, and his achievements of 1797-98 seemed to him but a mere earnest of what he was destined to accomplish. His powers of mental concentration were undiminished, as his student days at Gottingen sufficiently proved; his conjugal and family affections, as Dr. Carrlyon notes for us, were still unimpaired; his own verse gives signs of a home-sickness and a yearning for his own fireside which were in melancholy contrast with the restlessness of his later years. Nay, even after his return to England, and during the six months of his regular work on the Morning Post, the vigour of his political articles entirely negatives the idea that any relaxation of intellectual energy had as yet set in. Yet within six months of his leaving London for Keswick there begins a progressive decline in Coleridge's literary activity in every form. The second part of Christabel, beautiful but inferior to the first, was composed in the autumn of 1800, and for the next two years, so far as the higher forms of literature are concerned, "the rest is silence." The author of the prefatory memoir in the edition of Coleridge's Poetical and Dramatic Works (1880), enumerates some half-dozen slight pieces contributed to the Morning Post in 1801, but declares that Coleridge's poetical contributions to this paper during 1802 were "very rich and varied, and included the magnificent ode entitled Dejection." Only the latter clause of this statement is entitled, I think, to command our assent. Varied though the list may be, it is hardly to be described as "rich." It covers only about seven weeks in the autumn of 1802, and, with the exception of the Lovers' Resolution and the "magnificent ode" referred to, the pieces are of the shortest and slightest kind. Nor is it accurate to say that the "political articles of the same period were also numerous and important." On the contrary, it would appear from an examination of Mrs. H. N. Coleridge's collection that her father's contributions to the Post between his departure from London and the autumn of 1802 were few and intermittent, and in August 1803 the proprietorship of that journal passed out of Mr. Stuart's hands. It is, in short, I think, impossible to doubt that very shortly after his migration to the Lake country he practically ceased not only to write poetry but to produce any mentionable quantity of complete work in the prose form. His mind, no doubt, was incessantly active throughout the whole of the deplorable period upon which we are now entering; but it seems pretty certain that its activity was not poetic nor even critical, but purely philosophical, and that the products of that activity went exclusively to marginalia and the pages of note-books.

Yet unfortunately we have almost no evidence, personal or other, from which we can with any certainty construct the psychological—if one should not rather say the physiological, or better still, perhaps, the pathological—history of this cardinal epoch in Coleridge's life. Miss Wordsworth's diary is nearly silent about him for the next few years; he was living indeed some dozen miles from her brother at Grasmere, and they could not therefore have been in daily intercourse. Southey did not come to the Lakes till 1803, and the records of his correspondence only begin therefore from that date. Mr. Cottle's Reminiscences are here a blank; Charles Lamb's correspondence yields little; and though De Quincey has plenty to say about this period in his characteristic fashion, it must have been based upon pure gossip, as he cites no authorities, and did not himself make Coleridge's acquaintance till six years afterwards. This, however, is at least certain, that his gloomy accounts of his own health begin from a period at which his satisfaction with his new abode was still as fresh as ever. The house which he had taken, now historic as the residence of two famous Englishmen, enjoyed a truly beautiful situation and the command of a most noble view. It stood in the vale of Derwentwater, on the bank of the river Greta, and about a mile from the lake. When Coleridge first entered it, it was uncompleted, and an arrangement was made by which, after completion, it was to be divided between the tenant and the landlord, a Mr. Jackson. As it turned out, however, the then completed portion was shared by them in common, the other portion, and eventually the whole, being afterwards occupied by Southey. In April 1801, some eight or nine months after his taking possession of Greta Hall, Coleridge thus describes it to its future occupant:—

"Our house stands on a low hill, the whole front of which is one field and an enormous garden, nine-tenths of which is a nursery garden. Behind the house is an orchard and a small wood on a steep slope, at the foot of which is the river Greta, which winds round and catches the evening's light in the front of the house. In front we have a giant camp—an encamped army of tent-like mountains which, by an inverted arch, gives a view of another vale. On our right the lovely vale and the wedge-shaped lake of Bassenthwaite; and on our left Derwentwater and Lodore full in view, and the fantastic mountains of Borrowdale. Behind is the massy Skiddaw, smooth, green, high, with two chasms and a tent-like ridge in the larger. A fairer scene you have not seen in all your wanderings."

There is here no note of discontent with the writer's surroundings; and yet, adds Mr. Cuthbert Southey in his Life and Correspondence of his father, the remainder of this letter was filled by Coleridge with "a most gloomy account of his health." Southey writes him in reply that he is convinced that his friend's "complaint is gouty, that good living is necessary and a good climate." In July of the same year he received a visit from Southey at Greta Hall, and one from Charles and Mary Lamb in the following summer, and it is probable that during such intervals of pleasurable excitement his health and spirits might temporarily rally. But henceforward and until his departure for Malta we gather nothing from any source as to Coleridge's normal condition of body and mind which is not unfavourable, and it is quite certain that he had long before 1804 enslaved himself to that fatal drug which was to remain his tyrant for the rest of his days.

When, then, and how did this slavery begin? What was the precise date of Coleridge's first experiences of opium, and what the original cause of his taking it? Within what time did its use become habitual? To what extent was the decline of his health the effect of the evil habit, and to what, if any, extent its cause? And how far, if at all, can the deterioration of his character and powers be attributed to a decay of physical constitution, brought about by influences beyond the sufferer's own control?

Could every one of these questions be completely answered, we should be in a position to solve the very obscure and painful problem before us; but though some of them can be answered with more or less approach to completeness, there is only one of them which can be finally disposed of. It is certain, and it is no doubt matter for melancholy satisfaction to have ascertained it, that Coleridge first had recourse to opium as an anodyne. It was Nature's revolt from pain, and not her appetite for pleasure, which drove him to the drug; and though De Quincey, with his almost comical malice, remarks that, though Coleridge began in the desire to obtain relief "there is no proof that he did not end in voluptuousness," there is on the other hand no proof whatever that he did so end—until the habit was formed. It is quite consistent with probability, and only accords with Coleridge's own express affirmations, to believe that it was the medicinal efficacy of opium, and this quality of it alone, which induced him to resort to it again and again until his senses contracted that well-known and insatiable craving for the peculiar excitement, "voluptuous" only to the initiated, which opium-intoxication creates. But let Coleridge speak on this point for himself. Writing in April 1826 he says:—

"I wrote a few stanzas three-and-twenty years ago, soon after my eyes had been opened to the true nature of the habit into which I had been ignorantly deluded by the seeming magic effects of opium, in the sudden removal of a supposed rheumatic affection, attended with swellings in my knees and palpitation of the heart and pains all over me, by which I had been bed-ridden for nearly six months. Unhappily among my neighbours' and landlord's books were a large number of medical reviews and magazines. I had always a fondness (a common case, but most mischievous turn with reading men who are at all dyspeptic) for dabbling in medical writings; and in one of these reviews I met a case which I fancied very like my own, in which a cure had been effected by the Kendal Black Drop. In an evil hour I procured it: it worked miracles—the swellings disappeared, the pains vanished. I was all alive, and all around me being as ignorant as myself, nothing could exceed my triumph. I talked of nothing else, prescribed the newly-discovered panacea for all complaints, and carried a little about with me not to lose any opportunity of administering 'instant relief and speedy cure' to all complainers, stranger or friend, gentle or simple. Alas! it is with a bitter smile, a laugh of gall and bitterness, that I recall this period of unsuspecting delusion, and how I first became aware of the Maelstrom, the fatal whirlpool to which I was drawing, just when the current was beyond my strength to stem. The state of my mind is truly portrayed in the following effusion, for God knows! that from that time I was the victim of pain and terror, nor had I at any time taken the flattering poison as a stimulus or for any craving after pleasurable sensation."

The "effusion" in question has parted company with the autobiographical note, and the author of the prefatory memoir above quoted conjectures it to have been a little poem entitled the Visionary Hope; but I am myself of opinion, after a careful study of both pieces, that it is more probably the Pains of Sleep, which moreover is known to have been written in 1803. But whichever it be, its date is fixed in that year by the statement in the autobiographical note of 1826 that the stanzas referred to in it were written "twenty-three years ago." Thus, then, we have the two facts established, that the opium-taking habit had its origin in a bodily ailment, and that at some time in 1803 that habit had become confirmed. The disastrous experiment in amateur therapeutics, which was the means of implanting it, could not have taken place, according to the autobiographical note, until at least six months after Coleridge's arrival at Keswick, and perhaps not for some months later yet. At any rate, it seems tolerably certain that it was not till the spring of 1801, when the climate of the Lake country first began to tell unfavourably on his health, that the "Kendal Black Drop" was taken. Possibly it may have been about the time (April 1801) when he wrote the letter to Southey which has been quoted above, and which, it will be remembered, contained "so gloomy an account of his health." How painfully ailing he was at this time we know from a variety of sources, from some of which we also gather that he must have been a sufferer in more or less serious forms from his boyhood upwards. Mr. Gillman, for instance, who speaks on this point with the twofold authority of confidant and medical expert, records a statement of Coleridge's to the effect that, as a result of such schoolboy imprudences as "swimming over the New River in my clothes and remaining in them, full half the time from seventeen to eighteen was passed by me in the sick ward of Christ's Hospital, afflicted with jaundice and rheumatic fever." From these indiscretions and their consequences "may be dated," Mr. Gillman thinks, "all his bodily sufferings in future life." That he was a martyr to periodical attacks of rheumatism for some years before his migration to Keswick is a conclusion resting upon something more than conjecture. The Ode to the Departing Year (1796) was written, as he has himself told us, under a severe attack of rheumatism in the head. In 1797 he describes himself in ill health, and as forced to retire on that account to the "lonely farmhouse between Porlock and London on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire," where Kubla Khan was written. [1]

Thus much is, moreover, certain, that whatever were Coleridge's health and habits during the first two years of his residence at Keswick, his career as a poet—that is to say, as a poet of the first order—was closed some months before that period had expired. The ode entitled Dejection, to which reference has so often been made, was written on the 4th of April 1802, and the evidential importance which attaches, in connection with the point under inquiry, to this singularly pathetic utterance has been almost universally recognised. Coleridge has himself cited its most significant passage in the Biographia Literaria as supplying the best description of his mental state at the time when it was written. De Quincey quotes it with appropriate comments in his Coleridge and Opium-Eating. Its testimony is reverently invoked by the poet's son in the introductory essay prefixed by him to his edition of his father's works. The earlier stanzas are, however, so necessary to the comprehension of Coleridge's mood at this time that a somewhat long extract must be made. In the opening stanza he expresses a longing that the storm which certain atmospheric signs of a delusively calm evening appear to promise might break forth, so that

"Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed, And sent my soul abroad, Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give, Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live."

And thus, with ever-deepening sadness, the poem proceeds:

"A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, In word, or sigh, or tear— O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood, To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo'd, All this long eve, so balmy and serene, Have I been gazing on the western sky, And its peculiar tint of yellow green: And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye! And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars, That give away their motion to the stars; Those stars, that glide behind them or between, Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen: Yon crescent Moon as fixed as if it grew In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue; I see them all so excellently fair, I see, not feel how beautiful they are!

"My genial spirits fail, And what can these avail To lift the smothering weight from off my breast? It were a vain endeavour, Though I should gaze for ever On that green light that lingers in the west: I may not hope from outward forms to win The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

"O Lady! we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does nature live: Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! And would we aught behold, of higher worth, Than that inanimate cold world allowed To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth, A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud Enveloping the earth— And from the soul itself must there be sent A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

"O pure of heart! thou need'st not ask of me What this strong music in the soul may be! What, and wherein it doth exist, This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist, This beautiful and beauty-making power. Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne'er was given, Save to the pure, and in their purest hour, Life, and Life's effluence, cloud at once and shower, Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power, Which, wedding Nature to us, gives in dower A new Earth and new Heaven, Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud— Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud— We in ourselves rejoice! And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight, All melodies the echoes of that voice, All colours a suffusion from that light."

And then follows the much quoted, profoundly touching, deeply significant stanza to which we have referred:—

"There was a time when, though my path was rough, This joy within me dallied with distress, And all misfortunes were but as the stuff Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness: For hope grew round me, like the twining vine, And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine. But now afflictions how me down to earth: Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth, But O! each visitation Suspends what nature gave me at my birth, My shaping spirit of Imagination. For not to think of what I needs must feel, But to be still and patient, all I can; And haply by abstruse research to steal From my own nature all the natural Man— This was my sole resource, my only plan: Till that which suits a part infects the whole, And now is almost grown the habit of my Soul."

Sadder lines than these were never perhaps written by any poet in description of his own feelings. And what gives them their peculiar sadness—as also, of course, their special biographical value—is that they are not, like Shelley's similarly entitled stanzas, the mere expression of a passing mood. They are the record of a life change, a veritable threnody over a spiritual death. For there can be no doubt— his whole subsequent history goes to show it—that Coleridge's "shaping spirit of Imagination" was in fact dead when these lines were written. To a man of stronger moral fibre a renascence of the poetical instinct in other forms might, as I have suggested above, been possible; but the poet of Christabel and the Ancient Mariner was dead. The metaphysician had taken his place, and was striving, in abstruse research, to live in forgetfulness of the loss. Little more, that is to say, than a twelvemonth after the composition of the second part of Christabel the impulse which gave birth to it had passed away for ever. Opium-taking had doubtless begun by this time—may conceivably indeed have begun nearly a year before—and the mere mood of the poem, the temporary phase of feeling which directed his mind inwards into deeper reflections on its permanent state, is no doubt strongly suggestive, in its excessive depression, of the terrible reaction which is known to follow upon opium-excitement. But, I confess, it seems to me improbable that even the habitual use of the stimulant for so comparatively short a time as twelve months could have produced so profound a change in Coleridge's intellectual nature. I cannot but think that De Quincey overstates the case in declaring that "opium killed Coleridge as a poet," though it may well be that, after the collapse of health, which appears to me to have been the real causa causans in the matter, had killed the poet as we know him, opium prevented his resurrection in another and it may be but little inferior form. On the whole, in fact, the most probable account of this all-important era in Coleridge's life appears to me to be this: that in the course of 1801, as he was approaching his thirtieth year, a distinct change for the worse—precipitated possibly, as Mr. Gillman thinks, by the climate of his new place of abode—took place in his constitution; that his rheumatic habit of body, and the dyspeptic trouble by which it was accompanied became confirmed; and that the severe attacks of the acute form of the malady which he underwent produced such a permanent lowering of his vitality and animal spirits as, first, to extinguish the creative impulse, and then to drive him to the physical anodyne of opium and to the mental stimulant of metaphysics.

From the summer of 1801, at any rate, his malaise, both of mind and body, appears to have grown apace. Repeated letters from Southey allow us to see how deeply concerned he was at this time about his friend's condition. Plans of foreign travel are discussed between them, and Southey endeavours in vain to spur his suffering and depressed correspondent to "the assertion of his supremacy" in some new literary work. But, with the exception of his occasional contributions to the press, whatever he committed to paper during these years exists only, if at all, in a fragmentary form. And his restlessness, continually on the increase, appears by the end of 1802 to have become ungovernable. In November of that year he eagerly accepted an offer from Thomas Wedgwood to become his companion on a tour, and he spent this and the greater part of the following month in South Wales with some temporary advantage, it would seem, to his health and spirits. "Coleridge," writes Mr. Wedgwood to a friend, "is all kindness to me, and in prodigious favour here. He is quite easy, cheerful, and takes great pains to make himself pleasant. He is willing, indeed desirous, to accompany me to any part of the globe." "Coll and I," he writes on another occasion, the abbreviation of name having been suggested to him by Coleridge himself, "harmonise amazingly," and adds that his companion "takes long rambles, and writes a great deal." But the fact that such changes of air and scene produced no permanent effect upon the invalid after his return

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse